Heleen Blanken is an explorer that never stops wondering about nature in all its forms and manifestations, and the complexities of humanity’s separation from the natural environment runs like a thread through her work as an artist. Through mediums such as cinematography, photography, installation art, or live visual performances in clubs or at festivals, she lets us take part in her attempts to discover and explain the wonders surrounding us – from the microscopically small to the unfathomable big. Those attempts are often very successful, which is also reflected in the impressive list of artists she has collaborated with (Ben Klock, Jeff Mills, Peter van Hoesen, Rødhåd, to name a few). Until its closing in 2015, she was part of a residency together with Sandrien at Amsterdam club Trouw, and her VJ performances brought her around the world. Recently, she has turned her focus more towards installations, thus breaking new ground – a principle underlying Heleen’s work as a whole.
What have you been up to recently?
It has been a really exciting and interesting year. I took the time to focus only on my work, and that focus made many things possible. This summer I made several works for Transmoderna on Ibiza, I designed my first proper stage for Draaimolen; The Chapel, and right now I am working on a beautiful new interactive digital environment based on nature’s growth together with Naivi and Stijn van Beek. We archived and scanned about 60 growth structures of nature of for instance corals, trees, and nests to develop an environment for a code based world. We’re trying to create a new world and aim for the sublimeness within nature itself. We’re also integrating sensors into the environment, so that persons that enter the work can have an influence. People can experience the work from a distance, but also have a dialogue with it. This dynamic interaction is very interesting, as it’s not always doing what you anticipate. We’re still in the middle of developing it, and when I work on it, I get totally lost. I start in the morning, and then it’s suddenly 9 in the night.
Time just vanishes, and you get lost in the vortex…
Yes, totally…it’s mesmerising.
I guess it’s also a good feeling getting immersed in the topic, so that everything else becomes less important.
It’s probably my escape from the daily train of thoughts. “What are we doing? Is it possible to have a happy life or should we worry all the time? Should we project some super optimistic answers for the future? Or should we show how we went wrong?” I am struggling with that, and I build my own escapes.
One can see a lot of compassion towards nature in your work. You’re putting nature up in the face of your spectators, reminding people of its existence.
It’s there, it’s present.
Another central topic for you is how we’ve lost touch with nature, or aren’t taking care of it as much as we should. This made me think about the recent upsurge in climate activism represented by groups like Extinction Rebellion. After a blockade they had in Berlin this spring, one of the activists was interviewed, saying that an important aspect for the people involved was to have a group where you could just be and cry together about – as you said – how we went wrong. Just to be able to express those kind of feelings too. Because the whole environmental discourse is a lot about this optimistic narrative – “We have to save the world” – but there’s less space for also acknowledging the dark side of it.
Yes, I really feel close to that. I’m not crying all the time, but I definitely feel a bit more leaning towards the pessimistic side of it. There are so many things that are beyond our control, and that’s fact. But then again the beauty of Extinction Rebellion is that we have to change it together, collectively. The individual is not important any more. We just really have to stand up and go if we want change. But in the end this can also be sitting holding hands, crying, and watching the end.
Yes, I just found it such a beautiful picture, even though it’s sad.
It’s about mourning what we’ve lost. And this is actually the first step of acknowledging how bad it is. There are so many things that are wrong in today’s world, but I think empathy will save a lot. It’s the first thing we need.
In a way, nature itself is so abstract. It can be very overwhelming. But if you start letting it in on an emotional level, I think then is when you really start understanding it.
Absolutely. It’s so profound and recognisable, but at the same time it feels otherworldly. We are drifting apart, and maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, to narrow that gap. To make the spectators see nature in a different way, that we are part of it, and make them see how beautiful it is. People sometimes might take it for granted.
You show us nature in a very beautiful way.
It’s important to wonder. But I’m struggling as well. It’s sometimes difficult to work as an artist because you are so independent. You’re just an individual trying to make something for an audience. It’s still only your vision, so sometimes it feels a bit irrelevant. On the other hand I feel that this is the only way for me to have a voice in this. I’m not a writer, nor a good debater, so this is the way I chose to speak out.
When you say “narrow the gap” you mean the gap between nature and us humans?
Yes, it can be very scary sometimes to feel as small as we are against these big powers around us. Even trying to grasp how big the universe is can be super humbling. I feel in these disconnected times it’s important to believe in a system, and if the world is not presenting a system to believe in, then I think we should look back at what the natural world provided. It’s such a beautiful construct. So why are we not looking back to that, and embracing that? I sometimes feel a little bit like an advocate, but it’s also my own personal search for coming closer to that, and trying to discover and explain the wonders that are around us.
You spend a lot of time exploring and discovering indeed. Is there one phenomenon or thing you’ve recently discovered that inspired you or that just blew your mind?
A year ago I did a one-month residency at the Institute for Geosciences in Utrecht, where I had access to every beautiful microscopic machine there was. I already knew this from books, but seeing the constant recurring patterns translated into every size with your own eyes was truly special. If you zoom in, everything seems built as little structures. It almost feels like digital, but it’s natural and it’s such an incredible construct.
What kind of things were you looking at for instance?
I was looking at microscopic pollen, diatoms, spores, algal cysts, and leaves. It was so beautiful to see that a leaf of a tree has little mouths that take up CO2. To see that it really works like that was amazing. When you look at a leaf with the naked eye you just see a leaf, but through the microscope you really see how the leaf works. It’s a whole new world.
It would be nice if trees could also use their mouths to speak. We have a very old tree in the garden, and sometimes I wonder what it has to tell.
Trees are very powerful. I don’t want to be this tree-hugger, but being around trees has been proven to alter your state of mind. It’s super healthy. I walk in a big park close to my home 4-5 hours a week, and just being there is saving me.
There is even a Japanese word for that: Shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing”, meaning just being in the presence of trees and the positive impact it has on your health.
That’s beautiful. And it’s so around us. It can be so profound to just lie in the woods and be still for a while. I read this compelling book about how trees have their own super system with all the fungus, that the fungus even has synapses like we have in the brain to transfer information, and that trees nurture their babies, and take care of the old cut-offs. Why are we not listening to nature? What’s wrong? I know what’s wrong, but…
As one example of your work I wanted to ask about The Chapels you made for Draaimolen Festival in 2018 and 2019. Can you talk us through the process behind it, from developing the concept to the point where The Chapel was standing in the forest and the music was playing?
Before relocating this year, Draaimolen’s festival site was in a beautiful old forest, which was going to be cut down completely. It was so sad because I believe they are building these bol.com warehouses for consumerism there [bol.com is a leading webshop in the Netherlands for books, toys and electronics]. So we took that as the starting point of the work – to honour the dying forest, emphasizing the unseen forces of nature, and to make a sacred place. With the second Chapel we went on with the meaning of spiritual places, and the celebration of the natural world. We wanted to play with the juxtaposition of sacred architecture and nature’s divine geometry. The wooden pentagram structure represents the five elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water, and the centrepiece is a 2.5 m wide brass plate – hand punched by me for two days. On the backside there was a projection screen, and I had two great lighting engineers who really helped me make this thing come to life. Like a circle around the Chapel, the team of Draaimolen paved the surroundings of the stage with very soft grass, allowing people to sit and contemplate, without imposing any rules or boundaries. Just listen to beautiful music and relax. And then of course all the artists playing there made it a magical day.
It must be amazing seeing it all fall into place.
Together with the festival director Milo van Buijtene, we created this amazing line up. We had an opening concert with Plaid, one of the first ambient musicians I encountered in my life. I was so proud that I could invite them there, that that was possible. They were super sweet and happy. And Alessandro Cortini, who I’m a really big fan of, played there as well. It was just really magical.
You once said that although you’re a visual artist, music is your most important source of inspiration. How does music inspire you in your artistic work?
Maybe it’s not the most, but it plays a significant part. It’s sometimes hard to be swept away internally by only extremely conceptual art, and this is why I turn to more atmospheric art. I think music has separated itself so much from boundaries, and can alter emotions in such a direct way. It’s a very direct art form. When I was really young – about 15 maybe – I had this idea of making an exhibition, and that people wore headphones, not talking about the work, but just listening to a particular piece of music carefully chosen to that piece of art. This idea always stayed with me. I think music is a beautiful way to evoke things that maybe just a picture can’t do. Combining the two elements, it transcends everything.
I totally agree that music can create worlds or images that a visual picture can’t create. I think when someone hears music, everyone hears it in their own way, and their own pictures emerge from what they’re hearing.
In this way I am directing the best possible way to translate that music in a certain image. In my head it makes sense, but it always stays my reality.
You’ve worked together with numerous artists. In terms of music I can mention Peter van Hoesen, Jeff Mills, Voices from the Lake, A Made Up Sound, Ben Klock… There are so many.
I wonder what they all want from me! (laughs) Just kidding, I am very happy to have worked with these great artists.
What have you learned from these collaborations?
Oh, that’s a hard one because every collaboration is so different. But what I’ve learned is that it’s really important to have both voices speaking. For me, in a good collaboration there is very much respect from both sides, for each artist’s processes, and not too much interference. You see what the possibilities are, why you should work together, and then go from there without too much meddling. If you give each other the confidence to experiment, that’s always a good ingredient for the best possible outcome of the project I think.
It’s like two artistic worlds are colliding, or merging.
Yes, it should be like a merging from those both worlds, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes artists have already a very fixed idea of what they want, and if that’s the case it’s really hard for me to be the best version of myself. If it’s organically growing, it works.
Like walking the road together.
Yes, for sure. Making something that transcends both of us. And that this is more important than anything else.
Some people call you “The Queen of visual mediums”. How do you relate to this title?
I haven’t really thought about that. Honestly, I’m still amazed that people know me sometimes. In the beginning of my career I used to do a lot of VJing in clubs, but now I’m turning more towards doing installations in the fine arts context. So in a sense I am turning a little bit away from the world where people know me. I’m happy that even now with the projects I do – my new path – people embrace it as well. I am very thankful for that, as it enables me to grow. You can also lose some people that were only expecting a visual show for instance. But I think it’s better not to care that much, and focus on progress.
When working as an artist, I think that’s one of the fundamental things you need to be able to.
Yes, this is really what I learned the last couple of years. Building such a resilience, like a reflection board of caring about what other people think. It’s always easy to hear compliments, but it’s better to have some remarks sometimes, to really be able to grow. If you’re constantly surrounded by people that praise you, it’s not good for you I think.
It can become a prison.
Yes. I see it all around me. People are sometimes only doing what they are expected to. I think you can’t be happy like that. It’ll eventually hunt you down. But it’s also difficult sometimes of course, because everything I do is for the first time. I’m experimenting under the eye of people. Sometimes it fails, and sometimes it really works. I take it as a challenge, and I am very thankful for being able to do what I do.
Photos: The Chapel 2019 (Heleen Blanken), Habitat (Heleen Blanken), Hexadome – Adaptive Enquiry (Heleen Blanken), The Chapel 2018 (Heleen Blanken), The Chapel 2019 (Heleen Blanken), Heleen Blanken (Photographer unknown)